Sunday, 29 December 2013

Villains of the year

I'm not talking Putin, Assad or lesser monsters of the daylight horror world, but three dreamhaunters of my reading and filmwatching year. Two gave me nightmares during an otherwise jolly Christmas in the bosom of our Lacock friends.

My compulsive pageturner was Fyodor Sologub's 1907 comic shocker The Little [perhaps better Petty] Demon, charting the descent into madness of a wretched provincial schoolmaster, Ardalyon Borisovich Peredonov, all envy, paranoia and hunger for the mortification of young flesh by the birch (top image, incidentally, is Boris Grigoriev's of Gogol's The Government Inspector as I couldn't find anything closer to this particular source). Peredonov's hopes for promotion through the agency of a distant, elderly princess - shades of The Queen of Spades - are exposed as ridiculous from the start, and their failure accelerates an already slippery slide.

Whereas Giulio Andreotti, seven times Italian prime minister and the all too real yet ungraspable subject of Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino's previous masterpiece before La Grande Bellezza, went right at the top of the tree and stayed there, God knows how, for far too long.

The inscrutable devil died only this year. He was the spider at the heart of the mafia web investigated by Peter Robb in Midnight in Sicily, so we knew a little about the circumstances before seeing the film, which might well confuse you if your grasp of labyrinthine Italian politics is forgivably loose. Yes, I need to see Il Divo again, but I'm not sure the density is really a problem when the basic issue of compromised political ambition is so clear. In any case Sorrentino makes a virtue of necessity by giving a host of red print - sometimes speeding up with deliberate absurdity - around murder victims and courtiers (all of whom have nicknames, like mafia henchmen).

The two cardinal virtues here are the bewilderingly beautiful cinematography - every frame a gem of perfect lighting and composition - and the flummoxing impersonation of Andreotti, 'Il Divo' himself, by Tony Servillo. What a gulf separates Servillo's performance here from his melancholy-mocking ageing playboy in La Grande Bellezza; but what a payoff in the virtuoso monologue where his Andreotti rises from impassivity to hysterical fury in trying to argue the right reason - keeping Italy together - for the wrong deeds (mass murder). He's even allowed a measure of sympathy in the scenes with his wife Livia. But the inner decline is inevitable.

And that's what seems to connect Peredonov and Andreotti with the truly horrifying Cathy Ames, negative pole of  John Steinbeck's strange and wondrous family saga East of Eden. Steinbeck leaves us in no doubt of what we're in for before we even meet her in the eighth chapter. 'I believe there are monsters born into the world to human parents', it begins, and a little later on: 'it is my belief that Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies, or lack of them, which drove and forced her all of her life. Some balance wheel was misweighted, some gear out of ratio. She was not like other people, never was from birth'.

Which explanation doesn't stop us hating Cathy or fearing what she's going to do next. The implosion here is much longer, over years, but it comes all the same. Peredonov and Cathy can't really be called tragic, for they have no perception of the path to their own downfall. Like Andreotti, with whom there's more room for doubt, they lack understanding of any human needs other than their own dreadful imperatives; they know nothing of compassion or even - again, not clear with the enigma of Andreotti - guilt. And so, as both authors make us abundantly aware, there is no complexity in their characters, only in the nature of the responses they cause: horrified fascination in Cathy's case, except from a few supremely moral individuals, and mirth at Peredonov's antics, tragic because there's a complimentary failure to understand the mental illness which leads to murder..

Yet both Sologub and Steinbeck make the banality of evil very compelling -  and in Sologub's case very funny, as in the manifestations of Peredonov's paranoia in the maltreated white cat he's afraid will report him to the police and the antics of the nedotykomka, the dirty little laughing creature rendered by Ronald Wilks as 'little demon', making two in his not always felicitous translation.  I came across the wacky Russian artist Dobuzhinsky's rendering of the nedotykomka in the novel below on a fascinating Russian website devoted to Sologub.

There are, of course, 'good' characters in both novels, even if the society of The Little Demon is mostly very shallow; it has a peculiar parallel plot in which a girlish schoolboy becomes involved in a queasy erotic game with one of three capricious sisters (a transferred homosexual fantasy on the author's part, perhaps?). Steinbeck's chronicle, on the other hand, is one of the richest and most nuanced novels I've ever read - I might even compare it to War and Peace. I can't frankly see the point of the film (Jo Van Fleet pictured up top in the middle with James Dean, and below), which as I understand it launches in two thirds of the way through the family history.

The recurring cycle is what counts. There are characters who comprehend the good but still veer to the bad; there are lyrical descriptions of the beautiful and occasionally ferocious Californian landscapes in which they're placed. And the Biblical parallels move quickly way beyond the schematic. It's certainly the most powerful book I've read this year, Steinbeck himself my fondest rediscovery for a very long time (hell, I never did get to blog about the enchanting road book Travels with Charley). He seems so very modern in his ecological concerns. So it's The Log from The Sea of Cortez, his diary of a journey with the polymathic marine biologist who inspired the loveable hero of Cannery Row and Sweet Sunday, which I ought to read next, or soon.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

An Ishmaelite welcome

It's the best part of the Christmas story, or rather the one according to Berlioz, Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus, having escaped the most obscene horror, arrive in Sais, Egypt, close to starvation. In the third part of L'enfance du Christ, they are rejected by Egyptians and Romans in the town with the same cry: 'away with you, filthy Jews!' An Ishmaelite father, however, welcomes them into a lively household.

The gist of what he sings is 'come in, poor homeless people, relax, eat, drink, listen to this sweet music'. And heaven on earth it is indeed, the trio for two flutes and harp. This is enough to reduce anyone to tears at such a point in Berlioz's gentle drama, if they haven't been weeping already (I was, nearly all the way through the BBC Symphony Orchestra performance the other week). The best I could find on YouTube has the harp replaced by a guitar, but the three players - from left to right, Armin Egger, Chia-Ling Renner-Liao and Wolfgang Renner - aren't bad at all, even if the 'transcription' is a little eccentric and spare at times. Enjoy, and happy holidays.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Orders of Russian angels

Definitely the cherubim and seraphim of Russian orthodox church music this year are a book and a CD. The book is the tender loving resurrection of our beloved late Noëlle Mann's work on an anthology for choirs to enjoy, as we did in the Kalina Choir under her guidance for all too few years. For that reason quite a few of the settings are familiar to me, though I'm racking my brains to remember the favourite - Chesnokov's Cherubic Hymn, I think.

It's also wonderful to have two settings of the birthday 'Mnogaya lyeta' ('Many years' or 'Long life') to hand. We used to sing Bortnyansky's version at the end, if memory serves, of every concert, but I'm also pleased to see Prokofiev's arrangements for either men's voices or seven-part chorus as taken from Ivan the Terrible, where the ceremonial scenes are a reminder that you could slip in orthodox music in Soviet times so long as it served the context of an historical film or play.

Heartfelt thanks to Noëlle's daughter Julia and her husband Kristian Hibberd for seeing everything through to publication as well as to Oxford University Press for making such a handsome job of it. There's also a very useful contextual introduction by Tatyana Soloviova.

I found out a great deal of interesting things about the luminaries of the style - Chesnokov, Kastalsky, Viktor (as opposed to the symphonist Vasily) Kalinnikov - when I was researching notes for that fabulous choir Tenebrae's new disc, Russian Treasures. The pathos of the Russian church music revival coming to a halt in 1917, and the fates of its strongest supporters, made for a moving background.

And the performances, which I had on an advance disc, formed a bedrock to my work. The famous low B flats of Russian basses are successfully emulated by the Tenebrae men on the first three tracks. There's special richness in the Cherubic Hymn of Moscow Synodal School disciple Nikolay Golovanov, later a conductor of incredible magnetism and eccentricity who was harried to death, like Prokofiev, in the last Stalin years. I think perhaps what haunts me most here is the way Chesnokov's 'Tebe poyem' works its way out of darkest B minor into light. It's a stunning collection, as good as any released by Russian choirs (though the Petersburg Cappella sound remains unlike any other worldwide).

This picture made me especially jolly when J showed it to me on Facebook. Standing are countertenor Iestyn Davies, tenor Ian Bostridge and baritone Peter Coleman-Wright in the Christmas-decorated Moscow home of the seated Rozhdestvenskys, great Gennady and his remarkable pianist wife Viktoria Postnikova. It made me especially glad to be reminded of the remarkable happening that occasioned the meeting - the Russian premiere of Britten's Death in Venice by one of his most stalwart Russian interpreters (Rozhdestvensky gave, inter alia, the first Soviet performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1966 with Yelena Obraztsova as a mezzo Oberon). And now, 38 years after its birth, Britten's last opera arrived at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

In amidst all the grotesque Putinshchina (is that right?), it was something of a miracle: an opera by a gay composer based on a novella by a gay author (Thomas Mann) about a gay man (Gustav von Aschenbach) longing for a beautiful youth, performed in a conservatory named after another gay composer (Tchaikovsky). I'm guessing that the performance, headed incidentally by four straight men, passed without censure only because it was done in concert - the elephant in the room would have been the exquisite dancing Tadzio.

Anyway, full marks to the British Council, whose photos these are, for facilitating it. I asked Iestyn on his return if he'd write about the experience for The Arts Desk - and he did, brilliantly. While we're on what would surprise Tchaikovsky, I've declared it repeatedly over the last 18 years: the very thought of the grand Pas de deux, Pas d'action, call it what you will, in Swan Lake's second act being danced so tenderly and lovingly by two men would have been unimaginable to him. But still it goes on its rapturously-received way, Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake with its virile, dangerous male swans, and at Sadler's Wells the other week the revival showed no signs of wear and tear.  I'm glad to have gone again and written about it for TAD.

The 'Odette/Odile' this time was the tall and sexy Jonathan Ollivier, pictured above with Sam Archer as the Prince by Hugo Glendinning and in many ways a fine replacement for Adam Cooper of sainted memory. We even got an orchestra back after several years of pre-recorded compromise. I praised it enthusiastically, much to the delight of conductor Brett Morris, who sent me a warm e-mail; time and again you find the music overlooked in ballet reviews, so I was happy to redress the balance. And I'm happy now - two days after putting up this post - to revisit the first Prince-Swan pairing as filmed in 1996, Scott Ambler as a superbly tortured prince and the dream swan king Adam Cooper. The picture isn't the best, but I wanted just that Pas de deux as it brings tears to my eyes whenever I watch it.

Serendipitously coinciding, Neeme Järvi's Bergen Philharmonic recording of the score on Chandos, absolutely complete, arrived a week before the return visit. As with their Sleeping Beauty, I've written the notes, indulging my long-term wish to do a number-by-number synopsis, so I can't praise it anywhere else. But I DO think this is as good as it gets, pending re-release of Rozhdestvensky's Moscow Radio Symphony version - and even that doesn't have the benefit of such extraordinary sound.

James Ehnes is once again the solo violinist, Johannes Wik has licence as before to work his individual magic on the harp cadenzas and Bergen cornettist Gary Peterson's playing in the Danse Napolitaine is out of this world. Järvi toys so beautifully with rhythms, melodies and reprises: sometimes brisk, sometimes leisurely, he's always unpredictable. Buy!

Friday, 20 December 2013

Norfolk churches annunciation


£1600: that's the amout we brought in between the four of us for the Norfolk Churches Trust after our September circular walk from Beechamwell, with the last major church on the route the rich and well-tended St George's Gooderstone (upper medieval panels of its south transept window pictured above). Warmest thanks to all who contributed: your cheques will at last have been cashed, I hope, by trusty Mary Heather of Burnham Thorpe, Nelson's church, to which the lion's share (I forgot what percentage) will go.Below: window from East Runcton, a conservation special, seen on an earlier walk.

We handed the money over to our leader and organiser Jill at the National Churches Trust's 60th birthday celebrations in Westminster Cathedral two Thursdays ago. The music was splendid, though sung by the -very fine - Westminster Abbey Special Services Choir rather than the usual one with the boys (in school, I guess). Readings were given by dubious TV celebrities Bettany Hughes and Bear Grylls, whom I've never set eyes on before; he seemed rather pleased with himself and chattered to his partner through the first half of Purcell's I Was Glad. That lovely actress Geraldine James, though, I adore, and she delivered a rather fine poem by Rowan Williams (picture below from the National Churches Trust's picture stream).

I was less impressed by Williams' successor as Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who doesn't have the most beguiling of voices and made the grandiose and wishful assertion that even the deconsecrated churches would eventually be filled by the 'growing numbers' of Christians ('not "if" but "when" '). One look around the packed abbey told one that this was an ageing community, though I suppose you could argue that new generations will grow into the religion. I doubt it. Certainly not for me any Christmas sermon by this man. On the other hand, in the present Archbishop of South Africa Thabo Cecil Makgoba, we have a highly articulate successor to the great Desmond Tutu. Please stay with him once you've clicked on this YouTube link (no embedding as yet available) - not that you wouldn't be compelled after the first few seconds - as he puts it so well about respecting the gift of difference.

We need leading Africans of dignity and eloquence even more now that Uganda has today passed its obscene law enacting life-long imprisonment for its gay citizens.

Anyway our cash would barely make a dent in the sums needed to repair the recent flood damage, which I'm guessing has spared most of the churches - the ones along the coast tend to be sensibly built on eminences. I'm almost tempted to re-read two fine novels featuring more terrible floods in the past, Jeremy Page's Salt and Dorothy L Sayers' The Nine Tailors (which of course also has a composite Norfolk fenland church at its centre). Jill sent this photo from the Eastern Daily Press (credit: Matthew Usher) of Kings Lynn's Customs House looking like a Venetian palazzo.

I last saw it in late summer light looking like this.

Too many churches sighted since our September walk: Layer Marney, East Mersey, Great Wigborough and Aldbury all need chronicling. But before I lose sight of it altogether, here's a church with a real gem of a south chapel, that of St Mary Bromham, Wiltshire. We visited it more or less spontaneously on the way to a sweeping downs walk on the last day of our late summer stay in Lacock (where we're heading again soon).

The Tocotes amd Beauchamp Chapel, licenced in 1492 and later called the Baynton Chapel after later incumbents, is richly decorated both within and without. Pevsner on the exterior: 'it is three bays long and extremely ornate. Buttresses decorated with thin buttress shafts and pinnacles. Five light window with angel busts at the apex.' Indeed, angels are everywhere, without

and within.

'Battlements with quatrefoils, pinnacles with their own decoration'.

The chapel boasts a fine painted ceiling

and several handsome tombs. There's one of Purbeck marble to Elizabeth Beauchamp, circa 1492. Pevsner again: 'tomb-chest with cusped quatrefoils containing shields. Canopy arcading merging into the heavy top. Against the back wall kneeling image of brass.'

Sir Edward Baynton's tomb-chest dates from a century later, with an abundance of family brasses.

There's also an alabaster effigy of Sir Richard Tocotes, d.1457, in the south transept, much graffitied - the inscriptions in themselves of interest - but very fine for all that

and plenty of original stained-glass canopies, with fragmentary glass around them.

We did the usual post-interior thing of walking round the outside, for the whole of the chapel needed seeing

but had quite a surprise on the north side: the giant celtic cross looked familiar.

It was, of course, the famous monument to Thomas Moore, whose Irish melodies - mostly in Britten's arrangements - J had sung at nearby Bowood the previous June. The inscription, which it was hard to see in the shadows, quotes ' O harp of my country'.

Shame we didn't realise Moore's home, Sloperton Cottage, was so close. J needs to learn more rep, and only the other day I was listening to Berlioz's Moore settings. They're not all inspired, but 'Adieu, Bessy' is a winner. Happy memories, anyway - a last shot, of singing around the piano beneath Tom's portrait at Derreen House, Country Kerry one idyllic summer.

Our dear friend Julie's mum Nora Morrice (right) is no longer with us, so we remember her with the greatest fondness. 'Lovely lady, lovely lady', our English master at my grammar school, the great 'Tibby' Bircher, used to sigh when we read scenes between Desdemona and Othello. Nora was truly that.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The grail

Here's one I prepared earlier, now let out of its cage. Look no further if you haven't listened to my Building a Library on Parsifal, just broadcast, and you're postponing revelation until you catch it on iPlayer for the week, or whatever this clip facility now up and running might be (17/!2: my producer tells me it should be 'up there until the end of days', or of the BBC, whichever comes first. There's also a podcast, which you can download here). I'll even stick in a further grail image, 'the one', ho hum, in Valencia Cathedral, to delay a glimpse of the winning cover.

The choice, for the first time in my 20-odd years of doing the programme, was totally obvious. So many folk have said to me over the past few months, 'of course you'll go for Knappertsbusch '62'. I thought I would when I listened again to Hans Hotter as Gurnemanz in Act One. But it became ever clearer to me as I listened to the three 'Kna' Bayreuth Parsifals currently doing the rounds - also including his first, from 1951, and his last of 1964, not long before his death - that I didn't want this kind of hard-hitting so often.

Kna's style does make for magnificent pinnacles - Hotter's 'O wunden-wundervoller heilige Speer' ('62) and George London's 'Erbarmen' in Act 1 ('51), Jon Vickers' 'Amfortas! Die Wunde!' in Act 2 ('64) - but what I've always sought since Haitink showed me the light at Covent Garden, conducting Bill Bryden's mostly intelligent production, is a naturalness that doesn't need to reiterate the spirituality and grandeur. As Mark Wigglesworth remarked when he came to talk to my Opera in Focus class the other week, Parsifal gives and gives while Tristan simply takes and leaves you exhausted. A great conductor needs to guide and give space where necessary, of course, but not to impose his (I await a 'her') will.

Which the great Rafael Kubelik never does. A few clever folk knew of this 1980 studio recording's existence but I certainly didn't before I came to listen and nor did my Parsifal-crazy producer Clive Portbury. He agrees that it's incomparably the best of what we have.

Runners-up I don't need to mention again here, but I do urge you to see the DVD of Hans Hollman's Zurich production. It would qualify alone as the only document of Haitink's conducting, but it's also the most quietly moving staging I've seen, trusting to the singers' stillness in the outer acts and - most important of all - respecting the transcendence of the grail ritual for all the suffering that surrounds it. The vital antidote, in short, to Stephen Langridge's Royal Opera horror. The students all thought so when I screeened Act Three in an extra class on Monday, and many wiped away the tears that simply hadn't flowed at Covent Garden.

I have a feeling that might happen when the Met production with Jonas Kaufmann comes out on DVD in February; from the images I've seen it appears much more in the right region than the one we're enduring in London. In the meantime, snap this up while you can; Gatti's conducting won't surpass Haitink's, and probably won't come anywhere near.

Alas, there are no clips on YouTube so I'll move sideways to seasonal seriousness. On the same Tuesday when my preparation schedule had been eaten up by the flying visit to 'do a telly', I took the BBC Symphony Orchestra class through two very different responses to the Flight into Egypt story, tied in with the chance to hear the two works in question tonight and tomorrow afternoon. Berlioz's painfully beautiful, intimate L'Enfance du Christ located the narrative close to the centre in the hands of the tenor 'Evangelist'. We had Anthony Rolfe-Johnson returning to life so scrupulously for John Eliot Gardiner, but all I could find on YouTube was Alain Vanzo not at his considerable best for Jean Martinon. So let's make do with that.

Like Britten's best poetry compilations, John Adams's El Niño would be admirable just as a sequence of magical words tellingly juxtaposed, without even  taking into account the extraordinary music which of course layers it still further. I look forward to experiencing it tonight without Peter Sellars' stage 'realisation', so enervating when the 2000 Paris original came to London. Adams for his supernatural epilogue turns to the charming and naive Gospel According to Pseudo-Matthew for a rest beneath a rather unusual palm tree, and juxtaposes it with the last of the stunning Mexican poems by Rosario Castellanos, a revelation to me.

As the soundclip doesn't offer a translation of the Castellanos poem, I take the liberty of reproducing it here:

Lady of the winds,
heron of the plains,
when you sway
your waist sings.

Gesture of prayer
or prelude of wings,
you are the cup into which the skies
pour one by one.

From the dark land of men
I've come kneeling to behold you,
Tall, naked, alone.
A poem.

So the text resounds and melts into a single repeated word in the mouths of  children - 'poesía'.

15/12 What a weekend it's been. My Arts Desk reviews are now up of El Niño here and of L'Enfance du Christ here. Don't whatever you do miss the Radio 3 broadcast of the ineffably moving Berlioz performance on the iPlayer here for the next week.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

On the day they booed Zuma

...I was summoned with three hours' notice to the BBC News 24 studios. The reason was loosely connected, I guess, with that surprising incident at what turned out to be a big party to celebrate Nelson Mandela's life (and incidentally I can't see under such circumstances why the hypocritical Daily Mail, glimpsed this time in the back of the cab they sent to ferry me back and forth, is at it again, condemning Obama's 'selfie', aligned with glamorous Danish PM and not so glam Cam, after he'd given such a wonderful speech).

So to the cause of my command performance. There had been booing at La Scala - che sorpresa - following what looked like a rather inventive new production of La traviata by hit-and-miss genius Dmitri Tcherniakov, and the news folk seemed most interested in the fact that tenor Piotr Beczala (pictured below by Johannes Ifkovits) had also got a boo or two. Full focus was on him, apparently, because he Facebooked that he'd never return to sing in Italy after that experience. 13/12 Inside information tells me that it happened because he wouldn't pay a claque to cheer him, so they booed instead. I did raise this possibility on the telly, but dismissed it because it seemed unlikely that, say, he and Damrau could possibly have been at loggerheads - and the claque phenomenon usually involves one leading singer hiring folk to diss the other.

I explained that as I hadn't been in Milan or at the livescreening I couldn't comment authoritatively, but they wanted me there all the same for a live sequence at 4.17pm and drummed up George Loomis, who had attended, to appear in the Paris studio. He looked comfortable there with a lovely view of the Eiffel Tower, whereas I was a bit overawed by the new television centre headquarters behind the much more familiar (to me) old Broadcasting House. My own shots are all a bit fuzzy as I didn't want to disturb with flash.

There were hordes of people around reception, plus paparazzi outside waiting for Katy Perry (about whom I know only the name and what she does). Then I was whisked down a corridor overlooking the largest newsroom in Europe - impressive and Metropolis-y - towards the studio where Tim Willcox was sitting behind a familiar desk.

To makeup first, and a chat with a lovely lady who told me how they're all on freelance contrasts, shocking. And then to the vast studio where there were only a man who pinned on my mike, two cameramen and Tim. I never spoke to him properly, got a nod as I sidled into a chair beside him and double-checked the pronunciation of 'Beczala' (Bechawa). I'd hoped there would be more about Tcherniakov, but it was mostly about tenors and why this one was booed.

From the excerpts on YouTube, I've no idea (why): Beczala, as I know, has style and musicianship most tenors with voices anywhere near as good as his completely lack. 'De' miei bollenti spiriti' is lovely, and done while rolling out pastry with Damrau's Violetta, a perfect image of domesticity (though as with other supposed soliloquies in the opera Tcherniakov breaks the rules and gives the singer a springboard for reaction). If anything's to be criticised it would be the heavier of conductor Daniele Gatti's tempi, though the Italians don't seem to have noticed those.

Despite pushing the voice dangerously in the public denunciation of Violetta, Beczala didn't crack - though he does on a wicked clip from a 2012 production of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette in a YouTube series called 'Perle nere' - 'black pearls'. Botha is on there too so Beczala is in fine company; it happens to the best. I want to see the whole of the show now - especially intrigued why Damrau is fancy-wigged as Jean Harlow in Act One and as 1970s Bette Midler in II.ii when the essential look is contemporary.

Anyway, I was walking back to the taxi from the rather intimidating TV HQ when nice co-ordinator Victoria Sill ran after me. BBC World Service had seen the live couple of minutes, liked it and wondered if I'd come back in to do a radio slot. Great: this would at least double my earnings (£50 'disturbance fee' for the telly). Typically, this interview was more relaxed and I had fun chatting to Newshour presenter Tim Franks.

Wonder if anyone saw the News 24 snippet - I just have, since Victoria very efficiently sent me the film without my even having to ask - but the radio chunk, neatly edited, is downloadable here (my bit's right at the end of the 'US Cuba Handshake' instalment). Probably the iPlayer version is the better long-term bet as the big programmes tend to be up for a year. For the next two and a half days, there's also Radio 3 iPlayer access to my chat with treasured colleague Marina Frolova-Walker and Music Matters presenter Tom Service on Stephen Walsh's excellently written but oddly marketed/presented book about Musorgsky and the Five.

Not much to add about mighty and compassionate Madiba, except that while dining on superb Indian dishes at friends Anupam and Paul on Sunday I brought up Peter Tatchell's equivocal response - which was that Mandela was unquestionably a great man, but from the great we expect so much, and he could have done more when it came to speaking out against Mugabe -  apparently he never did - and dealing with HIV/AIDS in South Africa. To which Chris Smith, aka Baron Smith of Finsbury, the first out gay MP and so a bit of a hero of mine*, responded that the day after he'd proclaimed his own HIV status, he got a message asking him to call Nelson Mandela and on ringing the number found the man himself on the end of the line. No other major figure showed that kind of solidarity at the time.

When I emailed Chris to ask if he'd mind my mentioning and/or naming him - and of course he didn't - he added: 'one of the things that had prompted me to say something publicly...was his speech after his son's death when he said we can only defeat HIV by being open about it, and talking about it'.

That personal touch sounds typical - lovely slot in the middle of Tuesday's World Service coverage - yes, I'm a fan of that station, for all its recent changes - where the daughter of a white activist remembers Mandela not only coming to their Camden home at the time of her father's funeral, but staying for tea and interrupting a speech to say hello to a neighbour he knew. At last tears did come to my eyes after all the generalised - if well deserved - eulogising. There's a fine tribute from colleague Jillian Edelstein on The Arts Desk, describing her experience of photographing Mandela in 1997. Here's her shot of a man we usually see smiling and extrovert rather than pensive.

10.10am: Jillian just emailed back with another image, which appeared in today's Guardian. Of course we need to see both sides of the great man.

Well, he is gone, but this great one isn't, and continues to do active good in the world. As, I think we're agreed but with greater reservations, is Time Magazine's figure of the year, humble Francis.

*Speaking out against a possible ban on gay employees in Rugby, he said: 'Good afternoon, I'm Chris Smith, I'm the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury. I'm gay, and so for that matter are about a hundred other members of the House of Commons, but they won't tell you openly'.